Austrian elections: Forget boy wonder Sebastian Kurz, the surge of the far-right is the real story

Austrian elections: Forget boy wonder Sebastian Kurz, the rise of the far-right is the real story

The Freedom Party may form part of a coalition

Monday, October 16, 2017

You might have heard of Sebastian Kurz who is expected to become Europe's youngest leader - but Austria's boy wonder may have to rely on the help of the far-right Freedom Party, whose success is the real story of the weekend's elections.

The story of 31-year-old Kurz is an easy one to tell: young and clean-cut, with a hardline policy on migrants, it's easy to see why the newspapers have focused on him this morning as he stands on the verge of becoming chancellor.

But it seems unlikely Kurz get a majority when when final results are announced later. This means he and his centre-right People's Party may have to form a coalition government with another party, one whose own islamophobia makes Kurz look like Angela Merkel when it comes to migrants.

The Freedom Party was led by former Nazi officer Anton Reinthaller in 1950s and it hasn't drifted too far fromAdolf Hitler's creed since then. Just a few days before the election, in fact, a party member was suspended for allegedly doing a Nazi salute, and it is claimed that he shouted “Heil Hitler" as he did so.

The identity of the suspected perpetrator has not been revealed, but he is said to be low-level and inconsequential. That description can not, however, be applied to party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who was once arrested by German police for taking part in a march organised by a banned neo-Nazi movement.

Earlier this year Strache suggested that Austria is becoming “Islamified” and claimed there should be a ban on what he has dubbed “fascistic Islam," which would include symbols associated with Muslims. The party previously called for a ban on face coverings such as the full-face Muslim veil and this has actually now been implemented in the country. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is also against immigration; Strache has called for the flow of migrants into the country to be completely terminated.

This year the party campaign centred on overcrowding in the country through its release of a sitcom called The Hubers, which discusses fears over the matter, but interestingly does not actually mention the word immigration.

It has said it wants to cut off welfare payments to migrants and hold Swiss-style referendums, meaning several issues the government deals with would be handed over to the public.

You may think that, given its views, the Freedom Party would have been kept well clear of government in the post-Nazi era. But in fact it's been in this territory before; in 2000 it formed a coalition with the People's Party, and a repeat this year looks a strong possibility.

Back then, however, the European Union imposed sanctions on Austria for allowing extremists into government. Will it do so again? Well it's certainly had plenty of time to consider the prospect, because the Freedom Party has been on the rise for a while. 

Last year the party's candidate, Norbert Hofer, came close to winning the presidency. He won the first round of voting, in fact, before eventually losing out to an independent candidate by 8% - after widespread panic across Europe that he might become the first far-right leader in Western Europe since Franco.

The Freedom Party has been criticised by the European Jewish Congress (EJC), as its president Doctor Moshe Kantor said: “A party which has run on a platform of xenophobic intolerance and the targeting of immigrants must not be granted a seat at the governing table." The EJC has called on Kurz not to form a government with the far-right party and instead work with centrist politicians.

The president of the World Jewish Congress Ronald S. Lauder has also called the success of the party "sad and distressing" and claimed "it is still full of xenophobes and racists and is, mildly put, very ambiguous toward Austria’s Nazi past.” He suggested The Freedom Party is "far beyond acceptable democratic limits" and likened it to the AfD in Germany and the National Front in France.

The AfD and National Front have, so far, been unable to achieve real power. But it seems their Austrian cousin is on the brink of going all the way, marking a worrying new chapter in the polarisation of Europe.